Anzac Day, solemn commemorations and the destructive futility of imperial wars

Another Anzac Day has passed in Australia. There were the established dawn services, commemorations, sporting events piggybacking on the Anzac tradition – nothing unusual. I have mixed emotions and reflections about Anzac Day; in fact, Anzac Day eve, April 24, is the day Armenians worldwide commemorate (if that is the correct word) the start of the 1915 Armenian genocide.

I frequently return to the incisive article by Hans-Lukas Kieser, published in The Conversation in 2015. Entitled “Join the dots between Gallipoli and the Armenian genocide”, the author examines the adoption of a ‘total war’ concept in spring 1915 by the Turkish governing body, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP).

By that stage, the Ottoman Turkish empire was crumbling, facing invasion by multiple enemy powers. The Armenians, along with Assyrians and other Christian minorities, were regarded as the internal disloyal element in the emerging Turkish Republic.

The CUP authorities took the decision to wipe out the established Ottoman Armenian community, and over the course of 1915 and 1916 between one and one and a half million Armenians were killed. Forced marches, exiled to remote concentration camps, starved, frozen, expelled from their homes – the Armenians experienced the first genocidal total war of the twentieth century. The new Turkish Republic was being built amidst an ethnically cleansed Anatolian peninsula.

As for the Gallipoli campaign, we all know the basic facts. Conceived by Winston Churchill, at that time the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Gallipoli landings were intended to weaken the Ottoman Turkish empire, thus defeating a major ally of Imperial Germany. That plan did not work.

The Australian and New Zealander troops, unaware of global politics or the character of the Ottoman Empire, were used as canon fodder in that ill-fated campaign. We are all aware of the deaths of the Anzac soldiers, but we should also remember that 10 000 French troops died in the Gallipoli campaign as well. French authorities, aware that the Gallipoli adventure did not turn into a large ‘front of the Orient’, have been content to forget about that particular episode of their nation’s military history.

It is one thing to commemorate the war dead; it is quite another to turn Anzac Day into a civic religion. As Binoy Kampmark wrote, the Anzac Day has become transformed into a sacral element of a specific militarist tradition. Aussie mateship, sacrifice, fighting for freedom – these are component parts of an Anzac secular religion. These have become sledgehammers with which to slam anyone who questions the motivations of the politicians who send troops into overseas battles.

Since the Howard years, Anzac Day has become not just an occasion for silent reflection. It has been incorporated into the activities of arms manufacturers to promote the sale of modern weapons. Paul Daley, writing in the Guardian last year, notes that an expanded Australian War Memorial featuring military hardware and exhibits of modern military conflicts flies in the face of solemn remembrance and quiet reflection.

Promoting stories of blokey heroism in today’s conflicts – such as the controversial role of Australian SAS troops in Afghanistan – is a perverse inversion of Anzac Day as a time of honouring those who never returned. And what of the returned veterans – traumatised, suffering from PTSD, debilitated by physical and psychological illnesses? First Nations veterans were basically ignored once they returned from conflict. They had to wage an unceasing battle in peacetime for equal recognition.

The stories of First Nations veterans are gradually coming into the light. Initially barred from enlisting by racist legislation, the Australian authorities relaxed these racially discriminatory criteria by 1917, largely because the British empire needed reinforcements. When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans returned home, they faced racism and discrimination. This year, at multiple Anzac Day ceremonies, the contributions of First Nations veterans was recognised.

Aaron Smith, writing in the Guardian, notes an important issue – the growing unofficial acknowledgment of the frontier wars. The numerous and horrific massacres of indigenous people waged by the English colonial authorities – an early example of genocidal warfare – has achieved a prominent place in our national conversation, but still lacks official recognition. It is the frontier wars that are the true foundation of the Australian nation, not service in a futile and destructive campaign for imperial British military objectives.

Should Anzac Day include a recognition of the frontier wars? If that is to occur, then we need to expand the conversation about the Anzacs to move beyond slouch hats, beer-drinking and two-up. Precolonial conflicts involved physical and cultural dispossession, trauma, marginalisation and resistance by the indigenous. The frontier wars have more than their fair share of commonalities with the 1915 genocide of the Armenians.

Let us be cautious regarding politicians who gloss over the horrific suffering of war, and promote myths of sacrifice and ‘true blue’ mateship. As Binoy Kampmark notes, Anzac Day is deployed as a parade of historical amnesia, rather than a full reckoning with the war makers, whose decisions lead to criminal blunders and horrific outcomes.

The Dalai Lama, Tibet as Shangri-La, and keeping secrets from the public

How would you react if a man in his eighties kissed a small boy on the lips, and then asked if he could suck the boy’s tongue? Reactions of disgust and outrage would follow. That is exactly what happened last month – and the man in question happens to be the widely celebrated Dalai Lama.

The office of the Dalai Lama issued a formal apology last month, after video of the incident went viral. I will not link to any video of the incident, but you may find details in the news media if you wish.

The Dalai Lama made these inappropriate advances to the boy at a public event at the headquarters of the Tibetan anti-Beijing opposition in India,. The Tibetan government in exile has tried to rationalise the behaviour as an ancient cultural tradition. However, independent journalist Caitlin Johnstone has reflected the underlying sentiment of the public regarding the Dalai Lama in her article here. What is particularly noteworthy about this incident is that the adult audience did nothing to remonstrate or stop the inappropriate contact.

Free Tibet rallying cry

The demand for a free Tibet acquired enormous traction among Hollywood celebrities (think Richard Gere, Steven Seagal, Sharon Stone, among others) and has reached the corridors of power in the United States, as well as in the UK, and to a smaller extent in Australia. The Dalai Lama personifies the avuncular, spiritually motivated peaceful nature of a Free Tibet government in exile up against the Communist Chinese. However, if we dig a bit deeper, the Tibetan cause has a darker, politically motivated history and agenda.

The purpose of this article is not to advocate for the Beijing government. Let’s acquire a more realistic and skeptical perspective for why this movement to free Tibet has become a cause célèbre, but the equally valid national struggles of other oppressed minorities, such as that of the Palestinians, is ignored. The claim of a free Tibet is predicated on a fictional and romanticised version of pre-Communist Tibet. Rule by the Buddhist lamas was anything but a peaceful Shangri-La for the majority of Tibetans.

Prior to the 1950s, Tibet was very much a feudal, backward society, reminiscent of medieval Europe. Most of the arable land was in the hands of a feudal aristocracy, and the majority of the population were serfs tied to working that land. The lamas of the Buddhist order formed a tiny and wealthy aristocracy, keeping the population down through violence and superstition. Mutilations and torture of rebellious serfs was common, and the sexual abuse of children was frequent among the lama-landholding class.

Buddhism in the west has acquired a kind of cache in contrast to the monotheistic religions. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have long histories beset by sectarian violence, internecine wars and economic exploitation. Buddhism appears to be quite separate from all that – at least on the surface. However, that rosy picture of nonviolent Buddhism does not correspond to the reality of Tibet under the lamas as a repressive and patriarchal feudal society. Theocratic despotism is not unique to Europe or the Middle East.

Buddhism did walk hand in hand with economic exploitation and subjugation of women. Education of serfs, particularly of girls, was forbidden; only the wealthy lamas and their children could acquire literacy. The monasteries, located on large landholdings, had their own private prisons for torturing runaway serfs and rebellious peasants.

Prior to the 1949 Communist revolution, the imperialist powers recognised Tibet as part of China; the latter having a long history intertwined with the former. Indeed, the selection and installation of the 14th Dalai Lama in Lhasa had to be approved by the then nationalist government in Beijing.

In 1951, Chinese troops did occupy Tibet; and the Maoist government in Beijing pursued a very moderate, gradualist policy at first. No attempt was made to expropriate the ultrawealthy landlords; in fact, Beijing asked for the Dalai Lama’s cooperation. The lama theocracy did not face an immediate threat of extermination. Social and economic changes proceeded cautiously at this time.

From the mid-1950s onwards, with the assistance of the CIA, the Tibetan lamas formed an anticommunist contra guerrilla army, and underground network to resist the Chinese military. Numerous scholars have described the formation and activities of this Tibetan contra network.

This covert operation intended to push Chinese control out of Tibet, and restore that nation’s status as a target of imperialist intrigues. From 1956 onwards, the Lamaist commando activities increased, until there was a large uprising in 1959. Beijing responded with a full scale invasion, and the Tibetan theocracy relocated to India, from where they continued their attacks on China.

That covert operation finally ended in the 1970s, but it served to poison relations between Washington and Beijing. The Dalai Lama and his collection of Tibetan exiles continued their relationship with the US intelligence community. His Holiness receives favourable media coverage, gives talks to international audiences on spirituality and philosophical wisdom. Whether his philosophical output is valid remains to be seen. He still serves as a weapon in the hands of Washington to prod Beijing.

When governmental secrecy is used as a cover for criminal or predatory activities and foreign policies, it is time to remove that secrecy and shine a spotlight on government conduct. We all know the reality of Chinese rule in Tibet. Before we start hoisting the Free Tibet flag, or changing our social media avatars to Tibet-friendly images, let’s be sure about what exactly we are supporting.

The Yemen negotiations – new hope that the long Saudi assault on Yemen will end

The eight year long Saudi war on Yemen looks, at long last, within reach of a resolution. Saudi negotiators will travel to the Yemeni capital for peace talks with their Houthi adversaries. Riyadh has agreed to lift the blockade of commercial imports into Hodeidah, Yemen’s main port, thus easing the humanitarian crisis wracking the Yemeni nation. All of the country’s southern ports will be able to receive commercial supplies.

These negotiations take place in a wider geopolitical context; the increased diplomatic activity of Beijing in the Middle East. Saudi forces, initially expecting a lightning victory, have instead become stuck in a prolonged quagmire by the Ansar Allah movement in South Yemen. The latter have launched large scale retaliatory attacks deep inside Saudi territory.

Riyadh’s losses mounted, and the Saudi rulers decided on rapprochement efforts with Iran and Syria. Those nations are currently under heavy sanctions imposed by the US. Here is where Beijing stepped in to construct region-wide solutions, thus increasing its standing.

Iran, a supporter of the Yemeni Houthi movement, is a long time rival of Saudi Arabia. The Beijing led diplomatic process has brought these two traditional enemies on a path of reconciliation. Whether that reconciliation will last remains to be seen. Riyadh and Tehran are on opposite sides of the Yemeni conflict.

In an article for The Intercept, Murtaza Hussain elaborates the crucial difference between US intervention in the Middle East, and Beijing’s diplomacy:

Recent farcical U.S. diplomatic agreements like the Abraham Accords did not entail any actual cessation of active hostilities and were largely based on U.S. concessions rather than any made by the involved parties. Unlike those deals, the Chinese-brokered rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran represents a genuine diplomatic accomplishment in which two rival powers were convinced to make compromises in the name of peace.

Decades of militarised US foreign policy contrasts with the reasonable diplomatic approach of Beijing. The latter succeeded in working out a ceasefire in Yemen – something US President Joe Biden has been promising for the last two years. The US has a long track record of undermining and sabotaging efforts to reach peace agreements between belligerent parties in the Middle East. Indeed, US policy has actively escalated hostilities in the Arab and Islamic worlds, prioritising military sales over respect for human rights.

Ryan Grim, writing in The Intercept, notes that Washington has enthusiastically supported Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Yemen for eight years. There has been an uninterrupted supply of weapons and logistical support to the Saudi military from Washington and London. All efforts at arriving at a peaceful resolution of the conflict were scuttled by Riyadh and its unwavering backer, the United States.

The US-UK supported Saudi war on Yemen has resulted in the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. While all the corporate media coverage focuses on the suffering of the Ukrainians – who are white and Christian – the Yemeni population have suffered near-starvation conditions as a result of the Saudi-imposed blockade.

Back in 2020, Kathy Kelly wrote of the Saudi-Yemen war that the US, through its policies, was responsible for prolonging the suffering of the Yemeni people. Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, declared that the supply of aid and supplies to Houthi controlled areas, limited as they were, should be reduced. Just to clarify, the US intends on starving the Yemeni population, because it opposes the Houthi government…..a barbaric philosophy implemented by regimes guilty of war crimes.

But the Houthi movement are proxies of Iran, aren’t they? No, they are not. While there are ideological similarities between the Yemeni nationalist Houthis and the regime in Tehran, it is a grave error to dismiss the Houthi militia as merely Iranian puppets. They have their own ideological development; a combination of Arab nationalism and Zaidi Shia religious dedication. While they are Shia, they differ from the predominantly Twelver Shia communities that constitute the majority followers of Shia Islam.

Thomas O Falk, writing in Al Jazeera, states that the Houthi movement has launched successful armed strikes not only against Saudi Arabia, but also against the other Gulf partner of Riyadh, the United Arab Emirates. The Emiratis joined the Saudi attack on Yemen, and quickly carved out their own economic and political interests in Yemen. Seeking to establish their own sphere of influence in southern Yemen, the Emiratis quickly became targets of Houthi forces.

Stephen Zunes, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, states that while there are valid criticisms of the Houthis, the latter are hardly Iranian puppets. Indeed, the only reason that Iran has gained influence with the Houthi movement – limited as it is – is precisely because of the Saudi invasion. The Yemeni Houthis are not tied to any Iranian military command structure, or integrated into any Iranian forces.

There is still a long way to go to achieve a durable peace in Yemen. The diplomatic efforts of Beijing in bringing Riyadh and Tehran together does not mean that the Saudis and Iranians will become best friends. The ceasefire will hopefully lead to a political transition phase, thus ushering in a new era of peaceful development for Yemen.